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State Dinosaur

Around 80 million years ago, the Hadrosaurus dinosaur roamed the area that became southern New Jersey.

by Vince Farinaccio

Most New Jersey residents probably know that there is a state flower (the common blue violet) and a state bird (the eastern goldfinch). Fewer might be aware that we also have a state insect (the European honeybee), a state butterfly (the black swallowtail butterfly) and a state mammal (the horse). But it’s a sure bet that not many know we are one of nine states that has an official state dinosaur.

Hadrosaurus foulkii is its name, and it’s been ours since 1991. There are other states that have official fossils that happen to be dinosaurs but, according to online sources, New Jersey seems to be the first to have selected an actual dinosaur and did so prior to the release of any Jurassic Park movies or pop culture incentive. It also, unlike Texas, didn’t change its mind and replace its choice after 12 years.

So, why the Hadrosaurus foulkii? The short, simple answer is that it once lived here in South Jersey. The longer, more involved answer concerns how that fact was discovered.

Around 80 million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period, the Hadrosaurus roamed the area that became southern New Jersey. Categorized as an herbivore, it is described in a South Jersey Magazine article by Dr. Harry Gershenowitz as being “a four-ton, thirty-foot long lizard” that sported a beak-like snout for consuming foliage and stood about 10 feet tall.

The earliest recorded discovery of dinosaurs in this area occurred in 1787, according to online sources, when Caspar Wistar and Timothy Matlack presented what they said was a thigh bone belonging to one that had been unearthed near Woodbury Creek. More Cretaceous discoveries were made in New Jersey in 1818.

Twenty years later, the stage was set for a much better understanding of exactly what had lived on this land millions of years ago. Workers employed by John E. Hopkins to excavate marl from a pit on his Haddonfield farm discovered bones from the Late Cretaceous Period. It’s reported that Hopkins saved the bones, eventually giving them away to friends to be used allegedly as door stops and other household items.

If Hopkins lacked scientific curiosity, he at least opened the door wide enough for those inclined to pursue this discovery in more detail. In 1858, while living in Haddonfield for the summer, William Foulke heard about the 1838 discovery. In his article, Gershenowitz includes a documented account of what occurred next: “Mr. Hopkins, with an intelligent appreciation of the object proposed, gave to Mr. Foulke, with prompt liberality, permission to dig in any part of the farm, and to take away whatever fossils might be thus procured.”

Foulke’s team initially encountered some difficulty in determining the exact location where the marl pit had stood 20 years earlier when the first set of bones had been uncovered. According to the account in Gershenowitz’s article, the site of the pit “had been made in the bed of a narrow ravine, in which a brook flows eastwardly into the south branch of Cooper’s Creek; but the pit had long since been filled to the common level of the bed, and it was in like manner overgrown with grass, shrubs and young trees, so as to be indistinguishable by the eye.”

Foulke probably never imagined at the time that his interest in reopening the marl pit and excavating 10 feet below the surface would unearth a nearly complete dinosaur skeleton or that Joseph Leidy, a recognized Philadelphia paleontologist at the time, would help name the Hadrosaurus and include Foulke’s surname as part of its title.

What makes this discovery so significant is that, prior to 1858, dinosaur bones had been found in various locations throughout Europe, but the discovery of a nearly complete fossilized dinosaur skeleton had never occurred until Foulke’s work in Haddonfield.

Next Week: The Bone Wars

Jersey Reflections